Mason Reese at 11: The grand old man of little boys has not made what Jack Paar used to call a "meteoric disapparance" or gone into retirement with his residuals. The reason he hasn't been popping up on talk shows and commercials as often as he did in his infancy, a couple of years ago, is that he broke the same leg twice and spent much of the last TV season recuperating in a hospital or in his Manhattan home.
Now, however, he is back, bothered only by a slight limp that is expected to vanish soon, and spending much of the summer in Hollywood looking for work with Mom. "A lot of shows are being submitted to my parents and myself right now," he says. "We'll check them out."
Before jetting to The Coast, Mason talked about his career, his personal life and - oh yes - fame, during a stop in Washington. He seemed as jaunty, erudite, level-headed and prone to eat too much at lunch as ever, and he was clearly as careful as ever not to walk down to adults, though the temptation must be great.
"I first broke my leg in September," he recalled, "I tripped on a rug. Yes, it's the truth - one of those fluke accidents. And then after I got out of the cast in December. I broke it again in February, because it didn't have sufficient time to heal. Then, after I got out of the cast again in February, they realized I had a staph infection in the leg so I had to go back to the hospital for 12 days after staying in the hospital before 20 days and 25 days.
"So, that is why you haven't seen me very much lately."
Even during his ordeal, Mason managed to film a commercial for a frozen food company. He was wearing a 20-pound body cast that went almost to his little armpits at the time, but he wanted to do the commercial because "it was such a great campaign" and "everybody was so sweet" on the set.
"If I didn't think it was important, I wouldn't have done it," Mason says pointedly. The body cast was hidden from the camera by having Mason stand behind a kitchen table.
"We used a real family for the commercial. I forget the family, but we used a real family. And then at the end I said. 'Here's my mon and dad,' and my dad came out and kissed a french fry and my mom held up the box and said she liked it a lot. My father didn't look too good kissing a french fry, though." Mason lowers his eyebrows. "Very foolish."
One does such things for art, and money, and because one is a professional. Mason is a professional. He has been doing commercials since the age of 4, when he beat out 600 other auditioning tots for a detergent spot.
"They wanted a kid who looked like he was just out of diapers," Mason explains, "and who was old enough to intelligently and - tra-la-la - that was me." The years from 1970 to 1973 saw him do three more commercials - "very slow, it wasn't a good period," he says - and then in late '73 a brand of canned ham made him a star with the "borgasmord" campaign that, Mason recalls, "went completely national and got me where I am today."
Today he is completely national himself and one of the first superstars to come out of TV commercials. He rejects the term "superstar," however. "What? Who? I'm not a superstar. No - Sammy Davis, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, those guys, they're big. Not me," he says. "I'm just someone who's trying to do his little part in TV - I make this sound like a tragic soap opera. So far, I've been very successful, but I'm not a superstar."
Last year, on the Fourth of July, ABC aired a situation comedy pilot called "Mason" that starred the inimitable Mr. Reese but didn't really make the most of his charm and his nearly eerie aplomb. "It did very well" in the ratings, Mason says, but did not become a series.
Was he critical of his own performance as he watched? "No I loved myself," he says, smiling. "Oh yes, oh yes. I was just terrific." He's kidding. "Seriously, I didn't judge myself. It's never fair for a person to judge himself because it's always going to be a little one-sided."
After the pilot was shown, Mason met Fred Silverman, then still at ABC. "He was very sweet, he really was," Mason says magnanimously. "He said that he loved me and did not like the show. I said, 'Gee. Okay.' And then he put up some more money to make another script, and the second script that was written wasn't very good at all, so everything was dropped."
Other TV shows and some movie projects were submitted but Mason, in consultation with his father, Bill, a former toy company executive, and his mother, Sonia, and ex-actress, rejected the ideas because the writers had assumed that an inordinately precociuos child would ipso facto have to be a monster.
"People expect me to be a typical show business bratty kid," Mason complains. "So we don't take certain parts that make me really seem like I'm a show business brat. We've had man parts sent to us that were really terrible, they were really bratty parts. And we said, 'If he's going to get a reputation for being a brat, why put him in a bratty part? That's only going to back it up.'"
Mason is concerned with his image. When he starred in a campaign for a donut company that used the tag line "Do I look like a Munchkin?" Mason ran into a lot of people hwo answered what was meant to be a rhetorical question in the affirmative. This is a sensitive area with him.
"A lot of people, because of how I talk and what I say, feel that I'm a midget," he says. "It's true! They do! So what happens is, when I had the donut commercial, 'Do I look like a Munchkin,' people had an even bigger reason to think that, you know, 'Oh, you're a Munchkin, you're a Munchkin.' That was a pain. That was just terrible. That was embarrassing."
The donuts themselves were also a problem. "Well, I'll tell you what happend. My mother is a diet fanatic. She likes to put everybody on a diet. She says she doesn't want me eating things like donuts because they have sugar and bad things inside. So when we were shooting the commercial, I would go into the men's room, sneaking a few donuts with me in my pockets.
"So one day, I must have had over 40 donuts; they were little, but I had 40 of them, and I woke up at 2 o'clock that night and I vomited. And I felt sick. Because I don't think I have ever had that many donuts at one time in my life. I don't think I ever had that many donuts in my life, period."
Years earlier he'd gained three pounds in one day when shooting a commercial for a slushy chocolate drink mix. He kept "messing up, purposely," so that the director would call for retakes. "I must have had eight 10-ounce glasses of that stuff," Mason says. "I gained about three pounds. The thing must have been 3 million calories a throw. It was garbage, but it was really good."
Shooting a commercial takes "nine or 10 hours, minimum," and Mason kills time during breaks with wooden swordfights, himself against a member of the crew, or games of poker. He learned poker when he was 4, while making his first commercial.
"I didn't play for money then, because I was too young," he says. "Nowadays, you can't play poker without a few dollars on you."
Mason Reese doesn't sing or tapdance or do acrobatic contortions. If this were an era without television, he could have been just as extraordinary a child and have gone unnoticed by the world. It's one of the reasons to be grateful to television. Mason isn't just an unusually articulate and realistic kid, he is also someone with the capacity to share, with seemingly littler effort and no false cheer, an apparently genuine delight at being alive.
So it is hard to come across him on the air or trundling down a city street and not feel encouraged. Mason seems to have combined the best of kid sensibilities with the better of adult sensibilities. He is a living lesson in sophisticated Joie de vivre - an enfant without the terrible .
"I really don't think I've been deprived of having a 'normal' childhood," says Mason, when asked if show biz has robbed him of his youth. "When people ask me that, I could ask them the same thing - 'Have you been deprived of having an abnormal childhood.?'"
The first flush of fame may have been the best. "I loved it, actually. I'd walk down the street and people would go, 'Hey borgasmord.' They didn't know my name then, but they do now. At first I hated to sign autographs, there were always all these people standing over me, but now I really seem to be able to handle it better.
"Some of the other kids in school used to be jealous. But I just said to them. 'Look, it's my hobby. My hobby is acting. And sometimes with actng comes fame, and with fame comes privileges.' I said, 'I also have a lot more responsibilities because I have to do my schoolwork along with acting.' And they realize that. They understand that. As they say, they can dig it.'" Mason laughs. "I don't say that very much, myself."